When I first looked at the poster of Protege, I had expected yet another stylish cop crime thriller in the vein of those Infernal Affairs films or perhaps something like director Derek Yee's previous foray in the genre back in 2004, the fabulous One Nite In Mongkok that roped him a Best Director award at the Hong Kong Awards. And based on the summary I read about the film, Andy Lau playing a big-team drug dealer, Daniel Wu being his apprentice (or protege) who is actually an undercover cop, I thought if this isn't a cop thriller, maybe it'll be like Johnnie To's Election movies, or maybe it might be more like this little-seen 2001 Daniel Wu film, Cop On A Mission, where an undercover cop who infiltrated a triad group gradually becomes a true scum.
Lots of different expectations, and a bit of worrying that this would be another clunker like Confession of Pain, glad to know that I was wrong. This film turned out to be a cross between Traffic (well, without that many plot strands going on at once) and Requiem for A Dream (without the visual acrobatics), a gritty, compelling anti-drugs drama which shows us the many layers of the drug-dealing world. The cops, the drug dealers, the manufacturers, the farmers who harvest opium, the addicts and the repercussions from their actions.
Kwan (Andy Lau) is a family man with kidney problems who seems to make an honest living selling electric appliances, he has a loving wife (Anita Yuen) pregnant with his third child. One wouldn't have thought that he is actually the most powerful drug lord in Hong Kong, especially since he chooses to distance himself as far away from the actual buyers, and employing runners and such to do his dirty job for him.
Planning to retire soon, he intends to pass his business to his protege, Nick (Daniel Wu), whom, as I've mentioned before, is an undercover cop. Despite having been part of the operation for seven years, Nick will soon get to see the true ugliness of the world he has been part of when he befriends a young woman, Jane, (Zhang Jingchu) and her daughter living opposite his flat. Jane turns out to be a drug addict trying to quit, just to set an example for her husband (Louis Koo), unfortunately, she has long fallen deep into the hole that it has become nearly impossible for her to climb back again, and her daughter is affected because of her.
In one scene, Kwan warns Nick about drug addicts, that he can only run the business properly without bearing the unnecessary weight of guilt. Emotional detachment is the only way to maintain sanity in such a crazy world, hence Kwan's success in his business, or Nick being able to maintain undercover just so he can apprehend the man who treats him like a brother.
Like Requiem For A Dream, this film's message is really about 'drugs is bad, drugs kill you'. Although slow-paced at first, the film becomes gradually more engaging as we are brought deeper into the darkness of its world (so realistic that I wonder whether it's accurate), with shocking scenes that made the two young women sitting next to me covering their mouths and gasping. The ugly fate of addicts, sudden intense bursts of violence (a particular scene where someone's hand is severed by the rapid smashing of a hammer) and some undercurrents of poignancy (Jane's young daughter has some of the most heart wrenching scenes I've ever seen in a Hong Kong movie).
All actors have cast aside their image, uglifying themselves Charlize Theron-style (okay, maybe not that bad) for their unglamorous roles in the film (Louis Koo, especially, you won't understand what I'm saying unless you see for youself). Putting up such strong dramatic acting that I wouldn't be surprised if The Protege gets a few acting nominations in next year's Hong Kong Film Awards. Heck, not just acting, I think it's likely to get a few major nominations as well. Understated yet emotional, bleak and depressing but not entirely without hope, there isn't much I can complain about the film.
It's strange that something as dark as this would be released for Valentine's Day and the Lunar New Year period, but after this, I don't really feel the want to watch the upcoming Twins Mission (personal experience tells me that a film with both members of Twins in it is likely to be horrible, they are better when working separately) and It's A Wonderful Life (starring and directed by Ronald Cheng, I don't know about the actual film, but the trailer I saw yesterday didn't look promising).
The Protege trailer